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In the Path of Destruction

Commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the Eruption of Mt. St. Helens

Thirty-five years ago Mount St. Helens erupted catastrophically, killing 57 people, destroying 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railway, and 185 miles of highway. The May 18, 1980, catastrophe was the most economically destructive eruption in the history of the United States.

Volcanic ash on the WSU Pullman campus

At Washington State University, even 300-plus miles away from the volcano, ash blanketed Pullman for days. Five years ago, WSU professor David Gaylord described the ash deposited on the Palouse as part of a natural recycling process “or rejuvenation process of the Palouse” bioregion. The Palouse’s deep topsoils are volcanic in origin, deposited here by winds over many thousands of years.

Until now, though, the stories of the eruption and its aftermath have only been told in bits and pieces. With the publication of In the Path of Destruction by WSU Press, a complete picture of the volcano’s destructive power finally emerges. Thirty-five years in the making, and with never-before-published photographs, the collaboration between WSU Press and Richard Waitt, an eminent U.S. Geological Service geologist, brings us the stories of eyewitnesses in their own words, and also recreates the scientific chronology of the eruption.

As Washington’s only land-grant institution, it is our responsibility and privilege to share excerpts from In the Path of Destruction, a high-profile example of the ways in which Washington State University brings to life the connection between our state’s thriving communities of scientists and the people we so proudly serve.

The following are excerpts from In the Path of Destruction, published by WSU Press:

But the Air Was Gone

Dan Balch and Brian Thomas were camped by Green River by a decrepit Forest Service cabin seventy yards west of Nelson and Ruff.

Thomas: Something woke me.

Balch: “What was that?” I asked. Out the tent’s back window, I saw white clouds on the distant southwest ridge.

Thomas: I looked out.

Balch: Brian stared. I looked again and the white clouds had turned black and expanded very fast toward us. “Let’s get the hell out!” I yelled.

Thomas: I shot out of the tent wearing a watch and long underwear. I sprinted toward a downed old-growth tree four feet in diameter fifteen feet away. I dove into a two-foot space beneath.

Balch: I heard faint rumbling like a truck on gravel. Some wind came through. Then three pops like gunshots in the distance, each one quieter. Behind Brian I ran from the tent in blue jeans, long-sleeved shirt, and wool socks. In the few seconds of semi-light I got ten feet to a tall fir.

A windblast hit. The tree I held tilted, and two others just beyond leaned. Within a couple seconds it got darker, then pitch black. The ground vibrated as if many trees came down all at once. The blast knocked me face-down and pushed the air out of me—I couldn’t breathe. Mud and ice rained down. I tried to get up, but the air was gone. There was enough down at the surface to breathe. Heavy chunks of mud and ice hit my back and melted. I grew cold. I could see nothing. I heard something like mud slopping down.

Thomas: As I rolled beneath the big log, something made a big muffled rumble. Trees fell onto my big log with enough force to roll it. A branch spur caught my right leg and hip, and with great leverage turned me into the ground and out sideways. A sharp pain meant my hip was broken. In darkness I couldn’t tell which way was up. I knew this was an eruption. It seemed the end.

Balch: Air pressure suddenly rose: my ears popped like coming down fast in a plane. Only seconds after the cold mud, everything burned. The wet and icy mud coating me baked to clay. Many dirt clods fell and thumped on the ground. I put my hands behind my head to guard it. They began burning. I’d been wet and freezing but seconds later felt dried as a prune. Ahead I felt a log. The tree I’d stood against was down! My fingers burned on it. Heavy chunks falling on me hurt. A big one hit my lower back. A hot one hit my left leg and burned. The heat and thumping lasted ten seconds, tapered off over ten, and stopped.

Thomas: Even down in the branches I got warm. I smelled sulfur, burned fir needles, and dirt—or like the pitch, sulfur, and steam of pulping liquor in the paper mill where I work. I groped out of my hole onto the trees but felt the heat and fell back.

Balch: A minute after the heat wave it lightened enough to see a few feet. I pulled up against two big logs, grabbed another on top, and stood. Three logs had piled on top of each other, three more stacked just beyond. Brian was farther. Bark on the trees had blistered. “Brian!” I yelled. No answer. The air cleared rapidly. Almost every tree lay on the ground! From the north they pointed south toward me, across the river they pointed north, on the west they pointed east. A huge swirl. Only a few stood. “Brian!” I yelled. Silence.

A Big Cloud Moving Fast and Making No Sound

Robert Payne, Mike Hubbard, and Keith Moore were along the Green River sixteen miles northwest of Mount St. Helens.

Hubbard: Three of us went fishing on Green River. We felt no risk from Mount St. Helens so far away. Bob’s truck was two hundred feet up and two hundred yards back from the river.

We stood on the north bank on an inside bend where current eddied slowly upriver. Along the banks stood partly leafed maple, alder, and cottonwood, and farther back tall firs. I worked upriver toward Bob, then we worked up toward Keith fishing a hole.

Payne: It was sunny, calm, the water clear and cold. Not fishing, I stood between Keith upstream with a fish basket over his shoulder and Mike just downstream fishing off rocks. Down in a steep part of valley among trees, we could see up but only partly south.

Hubbard: We were now eight yards apart—Keith on a point at the top of the hole, I near the lower end casting a lure past a steelhead I saw.

Keith hollered and pointed south: “Goddam! Look at that!” A huge, churning cloud billowed a mile south of the ridge, really moving, dark gray at the center, lighter at the edges.

Payne: The big cloud, black and billowy, rolled toward us making no sound.

Hubbard: We could see half a mile of ridgeline. The cloud suddenly loomed over the ridge as a wall. It didn’t continue up but flowed down through the forest toward us. The front was a thousand feet high—boiling, gray, turbulent, coming very fast.

I dropped my pole and ran down the bank. I looked back and already it was almost on us, a hundred yards back. Bob ran just behind me, and I glimpsed Keith forty yards back running from the river into taller timber. Just ahead of me was a huge maple tree, four feet in diameter. I dove in behind it, Bob dove in, and it turned black.

Payne: It enveloped us, pitch black and indescribably hot. Thunder like heavy artillery close by lasted ten seconds—trees coming down, I think. Then came heavy rumbling and thunder from the mountain, and lightning in the cloud. A fierce wind knocked me back onto Mike. It lasted half a minute. It was like Navy boot camp when we jumped into water with fire on it, but this much hotter and longer.

Hubbard: Ripping hot. I heard breaking trees like a timber operation for many seconds. It was hard to breathe, my mouth hot and full of dust. I was on my knees, my back to the hot wind. It blew me along, lifting my rear so I was up on my hands. Then I came up and bounced along a couple times. It pushed Bob along too, and we stayed together bumping each other. It was hot but I didn’t feel burned—until I felt my ears curl. After half a minute the wind slackened.

“Dive in the river!” I yelled. The icy water ended the burning. The hot and dry dust in my mouth was now mud. I fingered it out.

Payne: The wind stopped, and we rolled into cold water up to our armpits. I pulled my wet shirt over my head to breathe through—a Navy boot camp trick.

Hubbard: Bob yelled, “Unbutton your shirt! Pull it up and rebutton!”

Payne: I helped pull Mike’s shirt up. It was too hot to stay above water. We bobbed down and up. Without my Navy training we’d be dead. For an inch above the water it wasn’t quite as dark.

Hubbard: We stood submerged, only nostrils and head out, wet shirts buttoned around our heads. We ducked then bobbed up. We could talk only by shouting.

Things fell in the black that felt like pumice but may have been pieces of tree. It stayed hot but not as bad. We bobbed up and down in the water a quarter hour.

Payne: The water grew thicker and warmer but didn’t rise. The air lightened: I could see two inches, then four. Then the black cloud pulled back east upriver. I smelled sulfur.

Hubbard: A slight breeze came upriver, and a patch of light appeared to the west. It grew and grew. Within a minute wind sucked the ash off us. Now at the base of a huge plume, we looked up forty thousand feet, fifty. The billowy cloud racing down the ridge had been big, but this wall was mighty. It didn’t churn like that other. It was like a great column of smoke going up. It mushroomed way up. Huge lightning bolts ran around its edge.

Most trees were down! Heat had shriveled maple and cottonwood leaves. We climbed onto the bank and walked up where Keith had been. Hundreds of big trees were down. Could he be pinned by one?

Payne: We searched and hollered for Keith but got no answer. Mike’s throat was so burned he whispered. We could see eight feet through talcum-powder ash in the air. On the ground the ash was over my eight-inch boot tops and hot. I found Keith’s fish basket and pole fifteen feet north of the bank where he’d fished. I hung them on a snag by the river. The big black cloud stood in a north-south line and curved far east, full of lightning and thunder.

Hubbard: We yelled for Keith and watched for any movement. My burned throat and vocal cords hurt. I called hoarsely enough to be heard. Warm ash lay eight inches thick over everything. For five minutes we searched and called and made noise he might hear. We found only his fishing gear. The air stayed fairly clear, but only 500 to 1000 yards away the vertical gray wall went up fifty thousand feet—so huge and powerful I felt tiny.

The base of the wall widened and came back downriver. When the edge was fifty feet away we worried of heat again and got back in the river.

Payne: The cloud came back and the air went dark again. The river was now warm and thick. The air was hot but not like earlier.

Hubbard: The river was full of grit and fifteen degrees warmer. The air blacked out again, this time not so hot. We got cold.

Payne: We began to shake—going into shock or hypothermia. Moving and talking, we stayed in the water another 45 minutes.

Hubbard: We climbed out and sat on the bank, air temperature about 100°F. It grew lighter over an hour and a half until like night. The mountain growled and ground shook. Shook 10 to 15 seconds and subsided. Fifteen minutes later another growl and shake. It died away as the air lightened.

We had to get out. My voice was much hoarser, and I might be going into shock. I suggested going downriver. I didn’t want to leave what had saved us. If another blast comes when we’re away from water, we’re cooked. But Bob said “No.”

We called for Keith, but again nothing. I thought him dead under a tree.

Payne: We couldn’t go downriver through a rocky canyon in hot ash across downed trees. We hiked toward the truck in hot ash many inches deep, stirring up clouds of powder.

Hubbard: We climbed steeply in semi-dark over and under many downed trees.

Payne: Trees had blown down both sides of the truck. About 11 o’clock I snapped a photo of Mike and he one of me. I hung the camera on the steering wheel: someone would know we’d come this far. Lightning flashed in the black cloud overhead. The mountain rumbled.

Hubbard: Eight inches of ash covered everything. We walked up road 1113. In cuts we went under downed trees, on fills over them. The mountain rumbled from time to time. The air lightened and ash on the ground thinned. We were in and out of down timber. After a mile we got beyond the down. The ash grew thinner but coated standing trees.

Payne: We walked north to road 1110, west to the 1100, and on west. Every creek ran thick with mud. I heard helicopters far south. We walked to Devil’s Creek, six road miles from our start.

Hubbard: The ash thinned to an inch as we walked another two miles. Two dark-green military hueys flew by, but we were in standing trees. At clearer water I went down to rinse off and Bob stayed. After a couple minutes he called, “Someone’s coming.”

Payne: A Bronco came by, two half-drunk teenagers. Mike came and we got in.

The best way was road 500 northeast toward Camp 9. But we drove into the ash cloud before Camp 9. Back west after many miles we turned north on road 510. We drank two of their beers.

We merged north with Salmon Creek road. After many miles the road crossed the divide and wound down to Winston Creek road. Miles farther we joined highway 12. From EJ’s store about 4:30 I called a friend, Mike Mulligan, and told him about missing Keith.

Hubbard: The kids drove us to Mossyrock. An ambulance moved us to the Morton hospital.

Payne: I was dehydrated by eight pounds, Mike—a tall, large man—by fifteen. They gave us shots and cleaned us but weren’t equipped for extensive burns. An ambulance took us to a burn center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma.

This Is Hell

David Crockett, 28, had covered Mount St. Helens for KOMO-TV for weeks. He left Seattle at 4:30 AM in a KOMO car and drove up the South Fork.

I’d driven up South Fork road 4100 to five miles west of Mount St. Helens. I got out of the car, focused on the mountain, and a black plume shot from the summit. I shot five photographs of the summit eruption and a huge dark-gray cloud boiling above the ridge to the north. There was no wind or sound. But now a huge cloud poofed above the north ridge down valley west of me!

I jumped in the car, turned around, and roared down the road at 60 mph. After five minutes, I saw in the rear-view mirror a horrible wall chasing me. It was like a tidal wave 20 feet high, tumbling trees and big rocks, burying the road a hundred yards back, gaining. I drove frantically. Two minutes later I came to a logging road. I turned left onto it to get out of the valley.

The road curved over a mound and turned down to a swale. As I raced downhill, a huge mass of water, mud, trees, and rocks crashed across the road fifty feet in front of me. It had lots of water but wasn’t a water flow. Some trees were many times the size of my car. The flow snapped off trees and seemed to explode when it hit lows, bursting up over obstacles. It struck the road embankment and burst up fifty feet. I jammed on the brakes and almost skidded into it. I backed uphill fast. Another flow bounced over the ridge and across road behind, full of trees and rocks. My car backed into the logs.

If I’d stayed in the main valley I’d be dead. If I’d reached the swale sooner I’d be dead. If I’d backed up faster I’d be dead here.

I was on an island, surrounded. If these fast flows deepen I’ll be buried. High ground lay south. From the mountain came growling and rumbling explosions and an east wind. Ash clouds to the north over the main valley flashed lightning. That big flow had subsided some—more watery now but still carrying trees and rocks. A thin light-gray dust settled on the car. I collected cameras and a radio. Shooting newsreel, I walked down the road to where the flood had burst in front of me. Now ten minutes later, my foot sank in quicksand but found hard bottom. I waded down through warm fluid brown concrete. I held the cameras above my head and did sink in once 2½ feet. I put the camera on my shoulder and shot as I crossed flowing warm, muddy water.

I got out of the mire onto the other side thirty minutes after the eruption began. A dark cloud descended. The road curved up southwest. I walked up as sandy ash rained vertically. The sky got very dark except for a patch of light over a low part of the southwest ridge. I put the camera back on my shoulder and shot—a record if I died.

I walked up toward this light. I felt pressure pulses on my face, and my ears popped. From the mountain came deep rumbles and a few deep explosions. I smelled burning wood. In occasional breezes from the mountain, ash slanted down from the east, falling denser when wind increased.

It grew exhausting to walk. Dry sand ash rained down heavily. I was suffocating not from dust but from oxygen-poor air. I stopped to rest every fifty feet or so. I don’t smoke or drink; I run five miles a day, hike a lot. In strong condition, I carried only 42 pounds of camera gear. But I could only creep up this gentle hill. The patch of light got smaller, then just a sliver of light. I talked as the camera rolled: “I’m walking toward the only light I can see—on top of the ridge . . . The ash is in my eyes . . . it’s . . . very hard to breathe . . . hurts to talk . . . This is hell I’m walking through.”

The patch of light closed. “I can’t see . . . I’ll . . . sit . . . and wait it out.”

It turned black. I could see nothing, no sliver of light. The air was poor. I coughed and choked on ash. It was hell on earth. On my radio I called “Mayday! Mayday!” No response. I thought I wouldn’t make it. The ash now fell so fast I thought I’d be buried and not found. Complete pitch-blackness.

In half an hour it lightened slightly to the west. I trudged farther up the ashy road. After I climbed a few hundred feet, a breeze picked up from the west toward the mountain. The air grew more normal, and I walked up with reasonable speed.

An hour ago trees and bushes were green. Now ash covered road, trees, stumps, brush, rocks—everything drab gray far as I could see.

I’d lost my radio in the dark. I had no matches to light a fire. I turned back to the car. The film camera with sound had jammed in the ash fall, but I shot photographs and silent film. In the car I found a signal flare. I wrote a message in the ash on the hood.

I hiked up to a ridge crest. I lit three fires in a triangle, the international distress signal.

After the huge morning flood, the South Fork returned to its ditch. It had swept all trees from the valley floor. I heard another flood coming about 2 p.m. It spilled from the ditch and kicked up over obstacles but was much smaller. It subsided after twenty minutes. The air cleared about five. I panned around with silent film. The mountain looked flat, its summit gone.
In early evening, a National Guard helicopter saw me or my fires. I walked up to a higher landing where there was more room. He tried to land but stirred up a big cloud. He tried again but couldn’t.

A big Coast Guard helicopter came by. They lowered a basket on a cable, but the rotors whipped up a huge cloud of ash. He hovered higher and lowered the basket. It bumped down as their rotors whipped up another great cloud. It drove ash into my eyes, mouth, clothes, camera. I groped blindly forward until my hand found the metal rim. I placed my cameras in it. As I climbed in the basket jerked up and bashed my head. I blacked out.

I came to groggy. They were slowly winching up the basket swinging on the cable. I looked down eighty feet and it made me almost sick. Since my morning ordeal in the ash fall that really scared me, I’ve been okay. Now they’ve blown ash all over, given me a mouthful, and conked me in the head. They wound the basket up and pulled it into the helicopter. From all the inhaled and swallowed ash and from my banged head, I could hardly breathe. I coughed and gagged. They put me on oxygen. It smelled sweet and refreshing.

A napping volcano blinked awake in March 1980. Author Richard Waitt was one of the first to arrive following the mountain’s early rumblings. Two months later, the mountain roared. A geologist with intimate knowledge of Mount St. Helens, Waitt offers a detailed and accurate chronicle of events. The eruption story unfolds through unforgettable, riveting narratives—the heart of a masterful chronology that also delivers engrossing science, history, and journalism.

Learn more about In the Path of Destruction on the WSU Press website.